Eastern Europeans at Ellis Island--they did not instantly learn English and assimilate.
Today I’m resurrecting an old chestnut—or given its length a bushel of chestnuts. Becoming American was written about 2002 in response to xenophobic rants we were encountering in McHenry County against the growing Hispanic population in previously nearly lily white communities. Comments wrapped themselves in pseudo patriotism and often made claims that the bigots' own immigrant ancestors got straight off the boat, learned English, and left behind their cultures.
Sound familiar? We hear the same thing today spoken with increasing boldness and wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat. The history lesson I wrote then needs to be taught again.
Asylum seekers caged last week under an El Paso highway viaduct.
This poem never made it into my 2004 Skinner House collection We Build Temples in the Heart. My editor was horrified that the nice Unitarian Universalist ladies who bought slender books in the Meditation Manual series would soil their panties at the litany of vile ethnic slurs that open the poem. Liberals, I was told, could never use those words ever no matter the context. Sensitivity to the words is probably greater now than it was then. I doubt the poem could ever be issued by a UU publisher.
But I have always believed that we must be brave enough to stare down ugliness. How can we fight it if we can’t even name it?
Another thing, poems are supposed to stand on their own. If you are bewildered by arcane references in T. S. Eliot or Sylvia Plath you are supposed to be sophisticated enough to parse them out for yourselves or let a professor in tweeds explain them for you. This poem, however, makes multiple references of real American history—but a history largely untaught, suppressed, or forgotten. Thus the annotations.
Buckle up, here we go.
The poet from an article about the publication of We Build Temples in the Heart--the book from which Becoming American was banned.
Becoming American (Annotated Version
A Thumbnail History of the European-American Immigrant Experience
A Thumbnail History of the European-American Immigrant Experience
Micks, Krauts, Wops, Frogs, Kikes,
Square Heads, Polacks, Bohunks,[i][i]
our huddled masses, bewildered and frightened
pressed against the Golden Door[ii][ii]
and burst in upon your Yankee yeomanry.[iii][iii]
Ready or not, here we came,
a stinking pestilence, a Popish rabble[iv][iv]
the shucked off waste of Babel[v][v]
polluting your pristine English stream,
the craven minions
of the Elders of the Protocols of Zion[vi][vi]
with appetites for Christian babes
and usury’s truncheon on honest men.
And you welcomed us with Know Nothing[vii][vii]
wet dreams of Maria Monk’s priestly orgies,[viii][viii]
with No Irish Need Apply[ix][ix]
posted in every clean and comfortable shop
where moleskin and brogan slaves[x][x]
might yearn for relief from spade and hod.[xi][xi]
You cursed the Dutchy[xii][xii]
who worshiped in his guttural tongue,
idled over beer instead of whiskey,
dreamed of failed revolutions[xiii][xiii]
and future one in endless
And, damn it, learn the language!
When you tired of lynching Black men,
you burned your crosses in our yards[xiv][xiv]
the purifying, scourging flames
exorcising Roman anti-Christs
and demonic Hebrew cults.
Yet we filled your tenements and slums,
your Hoovervilles and hobo jungles,[xv][xv]
your railroad shacks and company towns,
your Army posts, your prisons,
and your potter’s fields.[xvi][xvi]
We dug and wove and dug some more,
we felled the endless forests
and reaped your amber waves of grain,[xvii][xvii]
hog butchered to the world,[xviii][xviii]
gandy danced and poured the very brimstone[xix][xix]
that steeled the nation’s progress,
we sewed and stitched and vulcanized,[xx][xx]
sailed your Death Ship and dug your graves.[xxi][xxi]
We did all of the dirty, bloody labors
that you spurned
and you called us lazy, ignorant, and ungrateful
as we died by the dutiful legion
in your burning pits and suffocating sweat shops.
We were Henry Forded and Taylorized,[xxii][xxii]
made mere interchangeable cogs
in the vast machine that made
more, always more,
as our days and years ran on,
a Mobius loop of numbing sameness.[xxiii][xxiii]
And when we finally clenched our fists in rage
and linked our arms in union,
we were Hay Marketed, Joe Hilled,[xxiv][xxiv]
Sacco and Vanzettied, Ludlowized,[xxv][xxv]
and Republic Steeled,[xxvi][xxvi]
we sang the new litany of martyrs
and grew strong.
You called your Pinkertons and gun thugs[xxvii][xxvii]
and when we would not yield,
you tagged us Reds and Commies,
raided and deported us,[xxviii][xxviii]
whetted your bayonets and gassed us,
and stuffed your prisons full.[xxix][xxix]
But we endured and inch by painful inch
we climbed to our place at your table,
now our children’s children’s children
are Yankees, the old tongues and ways
abandoned with no regret,
we have mixed our blood
until there are swarthy Olsons
and Hebrew Fitzgeralds.
Now we hear our progeny say—
“Why don’t they just learn English?
They breed like rabbits
and lay around on welfare.
Go back to where you came from!”
Truly, they have become American.
[i][i] Irish, Germans, Italians, French, Jews, Scandinavians, Poles, Bohemians.
[i][ii] The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
[i][iii] Free men subject to militia call.
[i][v] Tower in Genesis struck down by Yahweh scattering the builders across the earth with mutually unintelligible languages.
[i][vi] Forgery purporting to prove an international Jewish Conspiracy to dominate the world.
[i][vii] Secret anti-immigrant political party, 1825-1860.
[i][viii] THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARIA MONK, a popular anti-Catholic book of the 1840’s purporting to expose sexual perversion among priests and nuns and the practice of anti-Christian rites.
[i][ix] Signs posted by merchants in Boston Shop windows from the 19th through the early 20th Centuries.
[i][x] Soft, heavy material used in trousers by Irish workers and the heavy laced shoes that they wore.
[i][xi] A devise for carrying bricks or mortar. Irish workers frequently “carried the hod.”
[i][xii] German from Deutsche.
[i][xiii] The great German migration began after the failure of the 1848 uprisings throughout the German states.
[i][xiv] The 1920’s revival of the Ku Klux Klan gained considerable support in the North as an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. The Klan seized control of the Indiana state government for a while.
[i][xv] Depression shanty towns named for Herbert Hoover and the camps of migrant workers near the railroads they used to get from job to job.
[i][xvi] Grave yard where paupers were buried at public expense, usually without any grave markers.
[i][xvii] America the Beautiful by Katherine Lee Bates.
[i][xviii] Chicago by Carl Sandburg.
[i][xix] Railroad track layers and maintenance workers.
[i][xx] The process of heating rubber with sulfur so that it will not become brittle in cold or gummy in heat discovered by Charles Goodyear in 1839..
[i][xxi] THE DEAH SHIP by B. Travin.
[i][xxii] Fredrick Winslow Talyor, an American industrial engineer who originated “scientific management” and “time motion studies” which led to the modern assembly line with each worker repeating highly specialized but limited tasks.
[i][xxiii] A three dimensional surface that has only one side, a continuous loop crated when a rectangular strip is twisted and the ends attached. Named form German mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius.
[i][xxiv] The Haymarket in Chicago, site of a labor rally in support of the 8-hour day which was attacked by Police on May 4, 1886. A bomb was thrown at the police, killing and wounding severs. Eight labor leaders, all but one German, were convicted of conspiracy and murder, though none could be tied to the crime. The youngest, Louis Ling, committed suicide. Albert Parson, August Spies, George Engle and Adoph Fischer here hanged, becoming America’s first great labor martyrs. Other defendants were later pardoned by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld. Joe hill was a Swedish immigrant who joined the Industrial Workers of The World (IWW) and became an itinerant organizer. He became most famous as the writer of numerous labor songs including The Preacher and the Slave, The Rebel Girl, and Casey Jones the Union Scab. He was framed on a murder charge and executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915. His final words became a labor legend, “Don’t mourn, organize!’
[i][xxv] ’Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Barolomeo Vanzetti a fish monger, were Italian immigrants and anarchists charged with a payroll robbers at a shoe factory in which a guard was killed on April 15, 1920. They were convicted on scant evidence and sentenced to death. Their case became the great labor cause of the ‘20’s. Despite worldwide protests they were executed in 1927. Fifty years later Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation clearing their names. 1n 1913 and 1914 coal miners, mostly Greeks and Slovaks, struck mines operated by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. at Ludlow, Colorado, owned by John D. Rockefeller. During the bitter strike, the company evicted strikers and their families from the company town. The strikers set up a nearby tent city. On April 20, 1914 the Colorado the National Guard attacked the camp with machine guns. At least 39 men, women and children were killed and scores injured.
[i][xxvi]On Memorial Day, 1937 several thousand strikers demanding union recognition made a peaceful march on the Republic Steel plant Chicago accompanied by their wives and children. The mayor had assured them that their march was legal and would be allowed. They were met by more than 500 Chicago Police who attacked them with tear gas, truncheons, pistol and rifle fire. Ten were killed outright, most shot in the back while on the ground. 90 others were wounded. A newsreel crew caught the whole action on film. Despite attempts to suppress the film and its damning evidence, Senate hearings called by Wisconsin’s Robert Lafollette exposed the truth of the attack.
[i][xxvii] Allen Pinkerton’s detective service had a long history of service to employers in labor disputes. Pinkerton agent James McParland infiltrated and broke the Molly Maguires, an Irish miners’ secret organization. Years later the same McParland kidnapped IWW William “Big Bill” Haywood and tried to frame him for the bombing murder of a former Idaho governor. Pinkerton guards frequently escorted strikebreakers and attacked union pickets. Gun thugs were simply local toughs employed by companies to intimidate or attack union supporters. The most famous gun thugs were employed by Ford Motor to attack Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers organizers in the ‘30’s.
[i][xxviii] The Palmer Raids of 1919, organized by a young J. Edgar Hoover of the Bureau of Investigation, swept up thousands of mostly foreign-born workers and radicals with little or no evidence of any crime. Hundreds were deported.
[i][xxix] The entire leadership of the IWW was arrested in three groups and held in Chicago, Kansas and California after World War I. Charged with “criminal syndicalism” hundreds spent years in prison for simply belonging to a labor union that the government regarded as dangerous. The McCarthy era of the late ‘40’s and ’50’s saw many more jailed for alleged membership in the American Communist Party.